Skip to main content
Texas 2020 Elections

Analysis: Bigger stages demand better contestants — in politics, as in everything else

Julián Castro and Beto O'Rourke, the Texans in the scrum of Democrats seeking that party's presidential nomination, have been on big stages before. But not this big.

U.S. 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro speaks during a campaign stop at The Livery Deli, in Boone, Iowa o…

Texas 2020 Elections

The last day to register to vote in Texas is Oct. 5. The last day to request a ballot to vote by mail is Oct. 23. Early voting starts on Oct. 13 and ends Oct. 30. Learn more about voting by mail, check out our guide on voting during the pandemic and bookmark your Texas ballot.

 More in this series 

Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.

Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York who flirted with, and then decided against, running for president, was at one time a professional baseball prospect. He got signed but never made it to the majors because, he said, he “couldn’t hit the curve.”

This also happens in music, academics, business — and in politics.

Somebody can be really good at one level and then fail as he or she climbs the ladder.

Not every great club band is on its way to stadium appearances. There’s a difference between a physicist and somebody with a degree in physics. Sometimes, a good assistant manager is only good as an assistant manager.

And being a star at one level of politics is no guarantee of stardom on a bigger stage with brighter lights.

Julián Castro of San Antonio and Beto O’Rourke of El Paso have entered a proving ground where other Texans have prospered or flopped. George W. Bush made it. Rick Perry didn’t. Ted Cruz got close, which, as the saying goes, is the same as winning first place among the losers. In other political ages, John Connally and Phil Gramm, a former governor and a U.S. senator, out-raised their competitors but still went home without trophies.

Running for president is harder than the other kinds of campaigns.

But it’s not just about running for president. Lots of the people in the Legislature have dreams of being governor or lieutenant governor of Texas. Almost all of them will either give up or fall short. That’s the nature of things. Ask Wendy Davis, the former state senator who lost the 2014 race for governor. Or any of a number of state lawmakers who fell short in runs for statewide office, a group that includes people who had successful legislative careers, like Dan Branch, Harvey Hilderbran, Leticia Van de Putte and Todd Staples, just to name some recent examples.

Staples, a former Texas agriculture commissioner, is also part of another group, one that includes former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson: candidates who succeeded at the bottom of the statewide ballot but not in the higher-profile races at the top.

There’s more scrutiny in a race for governor of Texas than for one of the three seats, say, on the Texas Railroad Commission. The race at the top has more money in it. It gets more media attention. The contestants have opposition researchers to dig up and then to distribute dirt on their opponents.

It's an entirely different kind of difficulty — a higher level in a video game or a chess match.

The perceived strength of the candidate comes into this as well. It can tell an observer how a candidate is viewed by the opposition. The frontrunner in a multicandidate race — the one getting more than her or his share of attention from the public and the media — often becomes the focus of attention for opponents, too.

Republican presidential hopefuls in 2015 and 2016 didn’t pay attention to Donald Trump until they realized he had a constituency. Trump himself worked his way down the line of strong opponents, giving them nicknames and knocking them down to size until he ended up in what amounted to a one-on-one battle with Cruz.

O’Rourke is getting more attention than his fellow Texan in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination right now. Castro has never run statewide; his numbers in the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll look the way O’Rourke’s did, back when O’Rourke was a relatively unknown congressman from El Paso who had never run statewide.

Castro, a former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and mayor of San Antonio, didn’t make the entry splash the El Pasoan did and didn’t stir the racket from other candidates that O’Rourke did. The president commented on O’Rourke’s busy hands in the new candidate’s introductory video. You can see the opposition research starting to bubble up, too, from other Democrats and from conservative groups like the Club for Growth, which hit the new guy with a commercial.

The timing for the two Texans is different, but they’re in for the same test: If and when they draw the attention of voters, or of donors, or of the media, they’re going to get a level of scrutiny and pushback candidates just don’t get in races for mayor or for Congress.

And the rest of us will learn whether, figuratively speaking, either of these guys can hit a curveball.

Quality journalism doesn't come free

Yes, I'll donate today